On 'Mellotron Variations,' A 1960s-Era Instrument Makes A Comeback | Connecticut Public Radio
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On 'Mellotron Variations,' A 1960s-Era Instrument Makes A Comeback

Nov 5, 2019
Originally published on November 5, 2019 11:53 pm

"It is an iconic part of so much pop and rock music, but it's also an instrument that's yet to be fully explored," says jazz keyboardist John Medeski.

Medeski is talking about the Mellotron. In addition to using the Mellotron on his own records, last year he collaborated with Pat Sansone of Wilco, Jonathan Kirkscey and Robby Grant to put on a concert in which all four musicians played original compositions together on the instrument. This summer, they released Mellotron Variations, a live album of that concert performance, and its accompanying film comes out this week.

The way Medeski uses the instrument might sound unfamiliar to its usual fans. "There's a wheel, a spinning wheel that controls the speed of the tapes and I started to realize that you can actually touch the wheel and change the speed and effect the sound," Medeski says. "It gave me the ability to sort of do stuff that a DJ does — you touch a record, you slow it down, you change the speed [of the music]. So I started using the Mellotron like that, as an expressive instrument of its own, not trying to imitate strings."

Mellotron Variations
Courtesy of the artist

The Mellotron debuted in 1963. With its two keyboards, the instrument looked a lot like an organ, but on the Mellotron they were side by side — the keys on the left gave you rhythms and backing tracks, while keys on the right called up woodwinds, strings and other instruments. Music producer Tony Visconti — who's worked with artists including David Bowie, Paul McCartney and Angélique Kidjo — is a fan.

"The people who invented it wanted this to be for home use only, so they didn't care too much about high fidelity," Visconti says. "The fidelity was so low, and you had this wobble in the sound. So when you pressed the key, the tape of that one note started to play. Towards the end, you'd hear a bit of a flutter, an out of tuneness..."

Musicians soon figured out how to turn these quirks into art. The Beatles used the Mellotron on "Strawberry Fields Forever" and The Moody Blues used it on several songs, including "Tuesday Afternoon."

YouTube

But Visconti says the Mellotron wasn't really built for the road.

"My friends, the Moody Blues, they had maybe four Mellotrons that they went on the road with, and at least two were in constant maintenance," he says.

Today, Alison Stout knows all about that constant maintenance. She restores old Mellotrons at her Philadelphia-based workshop, Bell Tone Synth Works, and it isn't like the mass-produced synthesizers she's used to working with. "This was just a small company making a niche product with limited resources," she says.

Stout explains that the keys often get stuck. The tapes inside stretch and wear out, leaving behind pop and dropouts. "There are all of these alignment issues, and things have to be demagnetized, lubricated..." she continues. "It's all just kind of rickety."

Even though British manufacturer Streetly Electronics suspended manufacturing of the Mellotron in the mid-1980s, it remained popular, popping up in the 1990s in music by Oasis, Radiohead and Blur. Today, several companies make the instrument (including Streetly, which debuted a new model in 2007). There are also digital versions, software plugins, and even Mellotron apps. But for musicians like Medeski, nothing compares to crafting sound by hand on the old analog machines.

"I have dedicated my life to instrumental music because I do feel it's a language of its own. The Mellotron adds another level of communicating in that language because it really opens up a door to a completely new and bizarre universe: new sounds, new colors, like an orchestra," he says.


Mellotron Variations Concert Film will premiere Nov. 8th at the Crosstown Arts Theatre in Memphis, Tenn., and you can catch them on tour at the Oz Arts in Nashville on Dec. 7.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The introduction to the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever" is instantly recognizable.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEATLES SONG, "STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER")

CHANG: Those aren't flutes, but tapes of flutes controlled by a quirky keyboard instrument called the Mellotron. It was popular in the 1960s and has remained a favorite among some musicians. Now the Mellotron is stepping back into the spotlight with an album all its own and a full documentary premiering this Friday, as Allyson McCabe reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ALLYSON MCCABE, BYLINE: The Mellotron debuted in 1963.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: No, you weren't listening to an orchestra, but one person sitting at the keyboard of this truly wonderful instrument of the '60s, the Mellotron.

MCCABE: It looked a lot like an organ with two keyboards, but the Mellotron's were side by side. The keys on the left gave you rhythms and backing tracks...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCABE: ...While keys on the right called up woodwinds, strings and other instruments.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Sounds like a real mandolin, doesn't it?

MCCABE: Music producer Tony Visconti is a fan. He's worked with artists including David Bowie, Paul McCartney and Angelique Kidjo.

TONY VISCONTI: The people who invented it wanted this to be for home use only, so they didn't care too much about high fidelity. The fidelity was so low, you had this wobble in the sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCABE: But musicians soon figured out how to turn these quirks into art.

VISCONTI: It sounds like the Beatles did some trickery to it, but it was the crappy Mellotron flutes. All you had to do is just hold your fingers down on three notes, and each of those notes had a different wobble to them. So it's...

(SOUNDBITE OF MELLOTRON PLAYING)

VISCONTI: There was no controlling that. But you used it, you know, like...

(SOUNDBITE OF MELLOTRON PLAYING)

MCCABE: The Beatles used it in "Strawberry Fields," and the Moody Blues used it in several songs, including "Tuesday Afternoon."

(SOUNDBITE OF THE MOODY BLUES SONG, "TUESDAY AFTERNOON")

MCCABE: But Visconti says the Mellotron wasn't really built for the road.

VISCONTI: The Moody Blues had maybe four Mellotrons that they went on the road with, and at least two were in constant maintenance nightly.

MCCABE: Today, Alison Stout knows all about that constant maintenance. She restores old Mellotrons at her Philadelphia-based workshop, Bell Tone Synth Works. She says the Mellotron isn't like the mass-produced synthesizers she's used to working with.

ALISON STOUT: Everything is made in a factory where they've made it a thousand times and it's all maximized for efficiency. But this was just a small company making a niche product with limited resources.

MCCABE: Stout says keys often stick. The tapes inside stretch and wear out, leaving behind pops and dropouts.

STOUT: It's all just kind of rickety.

(SOUNDBITE OF MELLOTRON PLAYING)

MCCABE: Even though British manufacturer Streetly Electronics stopped making the Mellotron in the mid-1980s, it remained popular, popping up in the 1990s in music by Oasis, Radiohead and Blur.

Today, several companies make semi-digital versions. But for musicians like jazz keyboardist John Medeski, nothing compares to crafting sound by hand on the original machines.

JOHN MEDESKI: There's a wheel - a spinning wheel that controls the speed of the tapes, and I started realizing you can actually touch the wheel and change the speed and affect the sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN MEDESKI'S MAD SKILLET'S "TUNA IN A CAN")

MEDESKI: It gave me the ability to do stuff that, like, a DJ does. You know, when you touch a record, you slow it down. It changes the pitch. And so I started using the Mellotron like that - as an expressive instrument of its own, not just to try to imitate strings or flutes, but create this melody that is not a typical melody. It's much more like (unintelligible) - like an alien language.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN MEDESKI'S MAD SKILLET'S "TUNA IN A CAN")

MCCABE: In addition to using the Mellotron on his own records, Medeski's collaborated with Pat Sansone, Jonathan Kirkscey and Robby Grant to release a new album featuring all four musicians playing Mellotrons in concert.

(SOUNDBITE OF MELLOTRON VARIATIONS' "WENT HOME TO MEET KONRAD")

MCCABE: Blithely disregarding the hassles their forebears endured, the quartet plans to take their Mellotrons on the road this fall.

MEDESKI: It is such an iconic part of so much pop and rock music, but it's also an instrument that is yet to be fully explored - what you can do with it, you know? And you can use it as a true medium of expression. You know, there's a lot to it. It's one of the great instruments.

MCCABE: For NPR News, I'm Allyson McCabe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MELLOTRON VARIATIONS' "DULCIMER BILL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.